Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

A Personal Perspective

JOHN C. POLANYI,
Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto

Science as you know, used to be termed "natural philosophy." It was a good description. We scientists philosophize about nature. We have been doing this to such effect in this century that we have transformed the accepted view of matter, energy, space, life, death and almost the universe.

Coincidentally, we have re-shaped the world we live in, extending and enriching human life and, regrettably, furnishing the machinery for megadeath.

Though we do science so well – some would say, too well – we don't explicitly know how we do it. We have no instruction booklets to offer. That is why we have our students work alongside us in our laboratories. They are required to imitate somebody who has the skill that they want to acquire, and they should imitate you on the occasions that we do it right.

This last statement implies that, though we have no rules for making discoveries, we do have some inkling of when we have made them. Nothing too surprising about that, you may say, it’s paradoxical but not surprising. At least, nothing uniquely surprising. It is also true of composing music, returning a tennis ball, or flying an airplane.

For all these skills, rule books though they may exist are absolutely inadequate; learning is by apprenticeship, and what is crucial in that apprenticeship is to be able to distinguish success from failure.

It is also what is most mysterious, since it suggests that one must already have a skill in order to exercise it. It is a circular argument. It’s a paradox. I have no answer for it. It worried Plato a lot. It should also worry infants, who are the most prodigious acquirers of skills, but the paradox doesn’t worry them at all.

The same is true of my colleagues who have a lot in common with infants They spend almost no time puzzling over the fact that they cannot explain, nor therefore logically justify, the methods they use. Most, if cornered, would say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating; science works. However, real philosophers, trained, as they are, not to understand things, find this answer unpersuasive. Nobody doubts, they say, that science works; what they question is its claim to be scientia–knowledge. Because it tastes like pudding, does not prove that it is pudding. This contemporary scepticism deserves to be taken seriously. I believe that it says things that are true, but derives from them things that are false.

Science, say the deconstructionists, is accepted because eminent personages, who accord themselves the title 'scientist,' claim it to be true. This is incontrovertible; no one is qualified, to check all the laws of science. We accept the major part of science, that is beyond our expertise, as a 'social construct.'

In this the deconstructionists are right.

They are also right when they go on to say that logic alone does not compel us to accept the truth of science. This is a way of saying that unequivocal proof does not exist. There is always room for equivocation. It is at this point in their argument, however, that the deconstructionists go off the rails. They conclude that, in the absence of proof, the proper attitude to science is ''absolute scepticism.''

This is absolute nonsense.

Before I elaborate, let me say that what we are encountering here is a widely touted 'post-modern' view of science. Its proponents hope that you will accord it the dubious compliment of finding it "scientific." I decline.

However, a wrecker's ball should not be taken lightly. What is the flaw in the deconstructionists' belief in disbelief?

There is a hint of it in my question. But let us consider more closely what it is that scientists do.

Usually they make observations of a numerical sort. These they plot on a computer screen. The points that appear on the screen may suggest a pattern. But they cannot, as the deconstructionists rightly insist, demand a particular pattern. Only an infinite number of points can make a continuous curve and persuade you of a shape.

We aren’t going to wait for infinite time. What we do is get together with our colleagues and peers and we agree that we have seen a pattern. This consensus is a product of logic informed by the conventions of the day.

It is indeed a social construct.

The post-modernist has nothing against social constructs, of course. Nor have I. In a moment I shall be so bold as to hold up those of science as the best hope of mankind. What the post-modernist objects to is that these social constructs are dignified as science.

What has a social construct, they ask, to do with truth? The answer is everything.

First of all let us note that this question would not be asked if the questioner did not believe in knowable truth. That I share this belief was evident in my earlier claim that in the pursuit of scientific truth we depend upon our ability to distinguish success from failure.

Clearly I believe success in achieving understanding is possible; what is truer can indeed be distinguished from what is less true.

Of course, we make mistakes. When we distinguish truth from falsehood we do so fallibly. This is important, and it is part of the post-modern thesis. The truth of science, we have already noted, is not guaranteed by logic. It is fallible.

Put differently, seeing requires an instrument which is a pair of eyes. But it requires more than a pair of eyes and, yet, we do see. This is why, in addition to the word 'see' we have the word 'vision.' It describes what the human mind does with the points of light on the retina. It also describes what the scientist does with the points on the computer screen; through his vision he links them, one with another.

The marvel of science is precisely the aspect that makes the post-modernists despair; the fact that our vision is informed not merely by data, but by our experience of the world. To widen that experience, we call upon the experience of others–their ideas of what is fitting or, differently stated, what is beautiful.

It is, in fact, the triumph of science that it is a social construct; not any old social construct, such as that stemming from feudalism or tyranny, but the most democratic social construct, called consensus.

For the achievement of consensus implies respect for the experience of others. If – and this is our shared premise – the truth is knowable, it is hard to conceive of a better means for approaching it than this process of casting our net beyond logic to beauty.

It may be objected that a consensus, however wise, is a product of its time, whereas the truth is eternal. The objection is valid. It has not been my purpose to argue that what at some time in history is regarded as 'science,' is the truth for all time. It is a station on the way to truth.

Looking back over the route science has taken, I would not even wish to say that each way-station is closer to truth than the last. I would only say that the accumulation of experience has brought with it, in the long run, more profound insights. It is this same conviction that causes hundreds of thousands to devote themselves passionately to the enterprise of science. Their belief in that enterprise is the very antithesis of the absolute scepticism enjoined on us by the post-modernists.

If that were accepted, it would be the death of science.

These remarks about the social construct that we call science, have implications for the two other topics of this meeting: ethics and human destiny.

A social construct of the sort I have been describing implies a society of constructors. What makes this particular society, the society of science, so extraordinary is not only the fact that for centuries past it has been an international society. Though that is significant.

Much more remarkable is its ethic, which requires that a shared goal which is this approach to truth, be put ahead of personal advantage.

This morning, the phrasing was, "does science, scientific knowledge, imply an ethical position or is the knowledge ethically without values incorporated?"

That is a very difficult question. I’m talking about the ethics that make possible discovery that make possible the society of science.

What do I mean by putting a shared goal against personal advantage?

{A} scientist who did not believe that objectivity, so far as it can be achieved, takes precedence over self-advancement, would not belong in science. If he put these unethical ideas into action by, for example, falsifying data, such an individual would be banished from the community of science forever.

The same, of course, is true not only of science but of any scholarly pursuit.

That ethic is pretty rare and that commitment to truth is at the same time a commitment to the fundamental tenets we call 'human rights.' The truth is no monopoly of one race, religion, nationality or gender. The devotion to truth, ahead of self interest, implies tolerance of dissent, freedom of speech, a willingness to listen–all central virtues of a democratic society.

And as we are beginning to realize, from such anguished situations as Kosovo, from the acknowledgment of human rights there should flow a sense of responsibility to safeguard those rights. Just as individual responsibility has flowered in society at large over the past decades, so it has among scientists.

It is no longer considered ethical to don a white lab coat and lead a life of monastic devotion to one's speciality. Scientists are citizens. Better yet, they are global citizens. Conspicuously, though too infrequently, they have acted as such.

In their citizenship they have to be clear about what it is they have to offer. They are numerate and literate in science. They belong to an international community with a commitment to objectivity – so far as that lies within them – and with bonds of trust that stem from that shared commitment. But they do not have a unique path to truth. They are not obviously all-wise on any subject.

What do scientists have to contribute, then, in the shaping of 'human destiny'?

Their humanity in the first place, as I have stressed. There have been conspicuous instances, in Nazi Germany for example, where their humanity has failed them, but it is more remarkable for resisting corruption, even in a climate of tyranny. You probably were first introduced to science as something impersonal and implacable machinery of proof. That is a fiction tyrants love because they want to co-opt that imaginary non-existent machinery.

The truth of the matter is, however, that science is a human activity; a social construct rather than a machine driven by undeniable logic. Scientists are people reasoning fallibly, as people do.

Sometimes scientists make brilliant use of symbols to gather human experience into patterns. Many of the patterns are superficial, some illusory, all provisional; for it is the lot of every scientist to be proved wrong in some respect by another scientist.

Yet each scientist, if he has genuinely sought the truth, has, in his stumbling progress, helped to find it. That is a statement about the human condition more than about 'human destiny.'

What fundamental alterations in our circumstances could science bring? One thinks of longer life and greater leisure. They are, increasingly, a reality. But could there not also be in science a model for a more decent life and more meaningful leisure? Surely there could.

So far I have not dwelt sufficiently on the miracle of the society of science even existing, a society in which virtually every member feels him or herself a participant. It is a real society, with leaders, laws, fellowship and history. Amazingly, it has held together for centuries without formal government, without inherited privilege, and without violence, police or prisons. It is sufficiently tolerant to actually invite dissent. Its heretics are not burnt at the stake, but hailed as heroes.

It is not, of course, a society of angels. Personal ambition is a major driving force. But to a high degree, and that is the model that I thought of in the context of this wonderful phrase of human destiny which we have been offered, to a high degree, this force has been harnessed to a common goal. That goal is not venal or cruel, but the humane one of understanding.

If the society of science could, through its existence, its example, give us this as our common destiny, it would have made its greatest gift to mankind.

Questions

Is there such a thing as value-free science? Surely scientist have a culture and have responsibilities that derive from that culture.

I think scientists do have a culture. I have been at pains to say that they are influenced by the world they live in. They depend on an esthetic, which is very much central to a culture.

I’ve said that they put their pursuit of truth ahead of all else. I see them as trying to think of little inroads they can make into the vast sea of ignorance that surrounds us; trying to find, in my case, small patterns in nature which have so far not been recognized.

Now I can’t see that as being different from providing a language. When you have a scientific law, whether its in mathematics or in words it does provide a very versatile and sometimes very powerful language. What you then proceed to say in that language is the point at which you face the ethical questions of what sort of world do you want to shape.

Sir John Maddox, this morning challenged people to think of some knowledge that it would be better not to have. I don’t know that anybody rose to that challenge. I think that ignorance is not only more dangerous than knowledge; I think that it is an ignoble condition.

We are born with a passion to know and people have driven one hour and one half across distressing roads to come here simply out of that passion, and paid for it! I find that enormously impressive. I want to congratulate Couchiching on existing after all this time. It’s a remarkable testimonial to human curiosity and we want to know and we should strive to know.

What we then do with that knowledge I think is a threshold that we cross together. Because that involves shaping the world.

* * *

How do you avoid something that is establishmentarianism; which means the people who are supposed to achieve a consensus in science becoming a closed society that does not allow anyone to challenge the consensus?

That is a real danger. A problem I boast for the civilized nature of the society that is science is that it struggles against that tendency. Of course there is a tendency when you receive something for comment to say well if I didn’t think of it, its probably wrong. It is the quickest way of making a decision.

But, the success of science in resisting what is a very real danger is exemplified, I think, heroically by the story of Albert Einstein.

This was in a time when respect for authority was greater than it is today. There was no television. Einstein was a patent clerk, third class in Bern, Switzerland, and he published some papers which challenged orthodoxy several times head on.

I think it was Max Plank who within a year was saying, this may be the new Copernicus.

Well, the fact is [Einstein’s] views, which must have been threatening to the great of science – and Max Plank was one of the greatest – were embraced. I’m sure they were resisted. The Swiss patent office promoted him from patent clerk third class to second class.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference